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Ramblings on an Old Hiker – Water Water Everywhere

By Steve Grant

When I’m planning a hike in an unfamiliar area on of my concerns is always the availability of water.  I’ve touched on the planning aspect of water in a previous article, but to summarize; Campsites should be close to a good water source and the availability of water along the trail during any hike must be considered so you can gauge how much water you need to carry with you for drinking and meals throughout the day.  There is another important subject to ponder though; how do I make sure the water I’m consuming will not make me sick? 

Before I start I need to state that I have no credentials on this subject but I’ve got years of experience, done lots of reading and as a result have some strong opinions on the actions hikers should take to stay on the right side of stupid.  Here are my thoughts; Water may be one of your most important considerations, if you are fortunate enough to live in a part of the world that has lots of water the it because less of a stress point but you still need to consider the quantity, location and quality. 


At the end of the day you need to consume 0.5 to 1.5 Litres (~ US Quarts) per hour (an interesting link), you can’t survive without water (maybe 3 days depending on conditions) and without water you will become somewhat impaired.  The best way to assess if you are consuming the quantity of water is to monitor the color of your urine, it should be very clear. If you urine is yellow (or worse orange) or you can’t remember the last time you had to stop for a pee, you need to drink more water.


You need to plan you hike so that you have sufficient water for drinking and cooking.  This may require stopping at streams to fill your water container(s) as opportunity arises.  I’ve spent 3 days on a small island in the Bay of Fundy with a single source of potable water and been on hikes where we spent the day on a mountain ridge well above any water sources so we need to fill up before we left our campsite and carry a full day supply to get us back to the camp late in the day.


A beautiful NB waterfall

This is really where I want to spend my time today, there are a couple of key considerations when targeting a water source: pathogens and Salinity.


There is still a debate on whether we should be concerned about but WAD (Wilderness Acquired Diarrhea) is not something that I want to deal with and in no way, enhances the Wilderness Experience.  There are several ways to treat water but first I prefer a source that running over standing, I avoid obvious beaver ponds and I always steer clear of water that is salt or brackish (explained in the next section). 

Common Water Treatment methods;

  1. Boiling;

a.Pros: Probably the most effective treatment method but you need boil water vigorously for 1 minute up to elevations of 2,000 meters (6,562 feet) and 3 minutes at elevations higher than that (a great article).

b.Cons; This will greatly increase you fuel consumption so if you are going to use your pack stove for this you need to carry more fuel and thus more weight.

  1. Chemical Treatment;

a.Pros:  Iodine and/or chlorine based treatment solutions are lightweight, compact and inexpensive.

b.Cons: The water needs to sit for a considerable length of time (30 minutes) but I get concerned that with turbidity in the water (dirt particles) that the time needs to be extended depending on water temperature and/or turbidity (dirt particles in the water that could contain parasites).  Many systems have a bad taste and I understand that they are not effective against Cryptosporidium.

  1. Filtering;

Steve always has safe water if he has his water filter

a.Pros:  Effective at eliminating parasites regardless of turbidity and does not alter the taste of the water.

b.Cons: Depending on the system selected they will add a few ounces to a pound to your pack weight and they are not effective for certain viruses.  If you filter water with high algae or other content you can clog a filer system, some can be backwashed to clear them out on the trail and some will require a new filter cartridge.

The two best solutions are to either boil or a combination of filtering followed by a chemical treatment.  The approach that I use is to filter all water (My go to is the Katadyn Hiker Pro) as I’m concerned with parasites not viruses in the areas that I hike and I carry a chemical treatment (Aquatabs are my favorite) as a back-up (in my survival pack) in case I experience a mechanical failure in my filter system (it is yet to happen) or I’m in survival mode without my pack (link to another article).

Now, if you are lost and unprepared then most of this goes out the window but there are a few guidelines; Choose running over standing water.  If it has an odour then you shouldn’t drink it, if you can boil it do so. 


If you hike in areas where there is salt water (As I do – close to the Bay of Fundy) then you need to be conscious of the fact that consuming salt water will make you sick (What if you drink saltwater?).  As a result I very cautious (maybe overly) of not consuming even brackish water (0.5 ppt to 30 ppt of salt content).  As I understand the risk you can consume water of up to 9 ppt without becoming ill but I don’t carry a device to test the water (hydrometer or refractometer) and I don’t know to tell the difference by taste so I use some conventional wisdom;

Brooks and Streams:

Any brook or stream that is tidal (flows into the ocean) I stay well above the high tide mark (keeping in mind that the Bay of Fundy Tides are 40+ feet).

Ponds and Lakes behind beaches:

One of my favourite spots has a small lake with only a rock beach separating it from the bay.  The brook that drains into the bay starts well above high tide but the bottom of the pond is well below.  There are times that the brook disappears into the rocks and doesn’t flow all the way to the bay.  I suspect the water from this pond filters out through the rocks to the bay and I would suggest that at high tide the revers Is bound to happen.  Because of this I suspect that the water is somewhat brackish and therefor I don’t use it for drinking.  It’s a bit of a walk to a small freshwater stream that flows into the pond but I like to stay on the safe side.  Anytime I encounter a pond or lake that is close to the Bay/Ocean and could have a bottom that’s below high tide level, I move on and find another source of water.

So, while in many parts of North America we don’t spend much time thinking about water it’s something that we can’t live without and bad water can be the same as no water at all (maybe worse with false expectations).  My experience tells me that with a bit of planning and good preparation you can head into the outback knowing what you have to deal with, feeling prepared and able to deal with any water surprises that might come your way.

Happy Hiking my friend,


2017-06-21 04:56:27


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